1st Sunday of Christmas [by Ian Souter]

Anglican lectionary:
Catholic lectionary:
1st Reading
Isa 63:7-9
Sir 3:2-17
2nd Reading
Hebr 2:10-18
Col 3:12-21
Matt 2:13-23
by Ian Souter, Methodist minister, Bath (England)

Don’t you hate it when at the end of a holiday someone says, ‘Ah well it’s back to work tomorrow’? You don’t want to be reminded that the sun and surf are going to be replaced by the desk and drudgery. Blow reality let’s just enjoy the moment. And the designers of the lectionary are just like that. To people still celebrating the soft-lit Christmas story, to those working through the turkey and trying to master the latest gadget, they ask us to turn our eyes onto a story from Matthew of despotic brutality, with grieving mothers, and a refugee family. Why can’t they leave us to enjoy Christmas?

But they are doing no more than highlighting the contrasts that are a feature of this Christmas season – togetherness and deep loneliness, family and tensions, consumerism and poverty, birth and death all sitting alongside each other. And even the planet experiences this – we celebrate the coming of the Saviour of the world [1] and plastic waste soars by 30% over the Christmas season. The story from Matthew that we often call the slaughter of the innocents reminds us of the less dramatic but daily suffering of an innocent creation both from the intentional actions of some leaders and from the unintended actions of ordinary people.

And on either side of the story of the innocents is the story of refugees and of a parent afraid for his child – echoes again of the reality we face of migrants from rising seas and drying water sources and of western parents suffering from climate anxiety.

The reality of our world is held up to us in the Gospel story. The quote from Jeremiah speaks of a grief that cannot be comforted and there are times when we look at the way creation is being mistreated and feel a depth of grief that is deep if not as deep as that felt by the parents in Bethlehem. This is our story. Yet although we see that story we continue to celebrate the glory of Christmas. Is this indifference on our part or have we seen a reason to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? [2]

The clue is there in all our readings for today.

Isaiah was no stranger to a people who were struggling; these last chapters of Isaiah are a strange mix of exultant hope and disappointed dreams. They reflect a people who see the promises of God but seem still to be cut off from him. Into the dark place of his people God speaks through the prophet. And he reminds them of the Exodus story and how God was with them. He shows them a God of amazing compassion, so compassionate that Isaiah can say of him “in all their distress he too was distressed.” Isaiah reminds them that God is deeply united with his people – he is there; he is feeling their distress; if anything he feels their distress more deeply than them because he knows the full reality and sees the lost potential.

The first step in moving from a numbing anxiety and fear about the direction our wonderful world is travelling to that place where we can live with hope and move into God-directed action is to know that God is deeply involved in his world. He feels for his creation more deeply than we do; he is present in the struggle to turn round our mess. At Christmas we celebrate name of God earlier in Isaiah – a name that is not just a Christmas name but a name that communicates God’s eternal nature – Emmanuel. He is eternally God with us and we need to hold on to that– we need to know that with his presence nothing is wholly lost but change can come.

Yet there is nothing worse when you have broken your leg than someone standing across the room and saying ‘I feel your pain’. ‘NO you don’t.’ The God who feels so deeply the pain of his creation and sees our fears and anxieties is not across the room he is totally involved. The writer of Hebrews sums it up – “since God’s children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity.” He is not across the room he is involved in our lives – that is what incarnation means. God in Christ enters into this human existence.

But as with so much of our reading of scripture we have failed to see the breadth of this idea – we have centred God’s love on one fragment of creation that walks around on two legs and is not as wise as the ‘homo sapiens’ tag implies. But we are part of the wider creation and the moment God becomes human in Christ, he also becomes one with all creation.

Charles Wesley trying to describe the incarnation writes [3]:

    • He laid his glory by,
      He wrapped him in our clay;
      Unmarked by human eye
      The latent Godhead lay;
      Infant of days he here became
      And bore the mild Immanuel’s name.

The reality that Wesley communicates is that Christ becomes one with the clay – the earth from which God created us and so becomes one not just with humanity but with all creation.

God in Christ enters into his creation and truly feels its pains and sufferings. Yet Hebrews reminds us that this act of becoming human was in order to liberate us from slavery, sin, fear and death. In entering into creation in Jesus God comes to liberate far more than just this short-lived human race. Paul says that Jesus came to reconcile all things to God. [4]

Just as we see the birth of Christ being the first step in giving us humans a rich hope, so it points to hope for the created universe which waits with eager longing for the children of God to be revealed. [5] It is a hope based on God’s intimate involvement in his creation.

So, as we see the creation struggling under human impact, there remains hope; hope that God himself is at work to transform the world; hope that humanity can be transformed to change its ways and care for what God has so lovingly made; and hope that in the power of the creator Spirit God’s people can catch his vision and work to restore what has been spoiled.

The reading from Matthew’s Gospel can seem to be totally gloomy and awful but there remains in the midst of that story God with us, who can transform it all. There seemed no reason for song in Bethlehem; there seems to be few reasons for song in a creation being degraded but the presence of God-with-us means that we are able to join the worship of Psalm 148 where wild animals and all cattle, small creatures and flying birds, young men and maidens (on the school strikes) old men (called Attenborough) and children (for whose future we long) sing praises to God.

As we enter 2020 may our worship of this redeeming God give us hope and may a hope-filled people transform the earth.

by Ian Souter, Bath (GB)


[1] God so loved the cosmos that he sent his Son is what John wrote.
[2] Psalm 137.4
[3] Hymn – Let earth and heaven combine Singing the Faith 208
[4] Colossians 1.20
[5] Romans 8.19